Free-Agent Signings That Should Happen Before the 2022 NFL Draft

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2022

Free-Agent Signings That Should Happen Before the 2022 NFL Draft

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    The 2022 NFL draft is now less than two weeks away, which means that many teams are more focused on rookie evaluation than gauging the remaining free-agent market. Many quality veterans are still available, though many will now wait until after the draft to find new homes.

    For many teams, especially those loaded with draft capital, it makes sense to see how the draft unfolds before turning back to the free-agent market to fill needs. All but the highest rookie contracts are team-friendly, while free-agent deals often aren't.

    That said, free agents are proven, and in some cases, it will make sense to lock up a veteran ahead of the draft. Below, you'll find eight signings that teams need to make happen before the start of Round 1.

    The motivations for these potential deals vary, but factors like team needs, market value, draft capital, cap space and any relevant recent buzz were all considered here. We'll dive into each situation and explain why waiting until after the draft could be a mistake.

Odell Beckham Jr. to the Los Angeles Rams

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Wideout Odell Beckham Jr. represents an interesting way to start this list. Beckham suffered a torn ACL in Super Bowl LVI and isn't likely to be available early if at all in the regular season. Teams have no reason to rush to sing him, right?

    Well, no. Getting Beckham under contract now would ensure that he spends the offseason rehabbing with team physicians and in a team-approved program. It would also give his next team insight throughout his recovery as to if and when he'll be on track to return.

    Ideally, Beckham will be able to return late in the season or in the playoffs, where he has shown he can make an impact. Beckham gave the Los Angeles Rams 21 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs before his injury.

    A return to L.A. would make plenty of sense for Beckham. While the Rams did add Allen Robinson II this offseason, they also traded away Robert Woods. The Rams have just $7 million in cap space, but according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, they're also still interested in bringing back Beckham.

    They should do so now. Signing Beckham wouldn't prevent Los Angeles from drafting another receiver if it believes one can contribute early. It would give get him into the 2022 program early and allow Beckham to hit the ground running once he's able to retake the field.

    The longer the Rams wait, the greater the chance of another team swooping in and snatching Beckham away.

Duane Brown to the Indianapolis Colts

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    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    At 36, Duane Brown can't be viewed as a long-term option, but he can be a reliable starter for a season or two. He earned a fifth Pro Bowl nod with the Seattle Seahawks in 2021 after starting all 17 games and handling himself well on Russell Wilson's blind side.

    He also started all 16 games in 2020. Over the past four seasons, he has only missed four starts. His reliability should be extremely attractive to the Indianapolis Colts.

    The Colts lost longtime starter Anthony Castonzo to retirement last offseason. 2021 starter Eric Fisher remains unsigned, and Brown would be a terrific stopgap option. Though older, he's the best left tackle still available.

    Signing Brown before the draft would be sensible. The Colts have a new quarterback in Matt Ryan, and they need to protect him. They're also without a first-round pick after acquiring Carson Wentz last year, so elite tackle prospects are likely out of Indy's draft range.

    The Colts would still be wise to draft a developmental tackle at some point this offseason. However, they need a surefire starter, and there's no guarantee they'll find that at pick No. 42 or later.

    Brown can be that starter, and Indianapolis has the cap space to get him under contract. With $21.7 million still available, the Colts have the second-most cap space in the NFL, behind only the Houston Texans.

Jadeveon Clowney to the Kansas City Chiefs

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    Nick Cammett/Associated Press

    Pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney reemerged as a pass-rushing force with the Cleveland Browns in 2021. Operating opposite Myles Garrett, he was the sort of difference-maker he was early in his career, finishing with nine sacks and 32 quarterback pressures in 14 appearances. 

    A return to Cleveland would be logical since Clowney knows he's a fit and can thrive with Garrett as his running mate. The Browns want him back too. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported on SportsCenter that the Browns are "pushing" Clowney to sign a new deal.

    We're here to examine what should happen, though, not necessarily what is most likely to happen. The Kansas City Chiefs should swoop in and sign Clowney before the Browns convince him to put ink to paper.

    Yes, the Chiefs have two first-round picks after trading away Tyreek Hill and could use one of them on a pass-rusher. Clowney is a proven commodity—albeit one with injury risks—and signing him before the draft would give Kansas City options.

    The Chiefs lack pass-rushing talent on the edges—defensive lineman Chris Jones led the team with nine sacks and was the only player to reach five in 2021. They could afford to grab Clowney and a rookie sack artist to help maximize their Super Bowl window.

    Kansas City has $14.4 million in cap space following the Hill trade and should use a chunk of that to take care of the first piece of this hypothetical game plan.

Melvin Gordon III to the Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens have already shown interest in free-agent running back Melvin Gordon III this offseason. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, they have engaged in talks with the 2015 first-round pick, who remains unsigned.

    Baltimore should go ahead and get a deal done with Gordon before the draft. Running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill are all coming off season-ending injuries, and the Ravens need depth at the absolute best. At worst, their backfield won't be ready for Week 1.

    Gordon showed in 2021 that he can still be an effective dual-threat back. With the Denver Broncos last season, he amassed 918 rushing yards, 213 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while splitting time with Javonte Williams.

    Yes, the Ravens could take a back in the draft, but signing Gordon now would allow them to use their capital on other areas of need.

    Baltimore could address an offensive line that surrendered 57 sacks last season and lost starting center Bradley Bozeman in free agency. The team could bolster a secondary that lost starting corners Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey to season-ending injures and finished dead-last in passing yards allowed.

    If the Ravens can make running back a non-factor in the draft, they should. Baltimore only has $7 million in cap space, but it should find a way to make the financials work, sign Gordon and move on to other needs.

Julio Jones to the Indianapolis Colts

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Wide receiver Julio Jones has been bothered by injuries over the past two seasons, and hamstring issues limited him to 10 games in 2021. That was his first and only season with the Tennessee Titans, which he finished with just 31 catches for 434 yards and one touchdown.

    The Titans released Jones earlier this offseason.

    However, the 33-year-old can still be an offensive weapon. Despite playing in only nine games in 2020, he tallied 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns. That was his last season with the Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan.

    Following an offseason trade, Ryan is now the Colts' quarterback, and Indy would be wise to reunite the two Pro Bowlers. The Colts should sign Jones before the draft too, to expand their rookie options.

    The Colts don't have a first-round pick, so they may not be able to land one of the top receiver prospects. Regardless, Jones isn't likely to command the sort of long-term commitment that would preclude Indy from drafting another receiver to develop under Jones and Michael Pittman Jr.

    Signing Jones would lessen the need at receiver over draft weekend. He and Ryan have years of chemistry together, and while injuries will remain a concern, that chemistry would be valuable when Jones is on the field.

    As previously mentioned, the Colts also have enough cap space to move quickly on predraft deals.

Tyrann Mathieu to the Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Tyrann Mathieu will turn 30 in May, but he remains one of the most versatile and capable strong safeties in the NFL.

    Mathieu finished last season with 76 tackles, six passes defended, three interceptions, a sack and a pick-six. He allowed an opposing passer rating of 88.1 in coverage. He also earned a third Pro Bowl nod. He should be a target of just about every team with a safety need and cap space to spare.

    We can count the Pittsburgh Steelers among the interested parties.

    "The Steelers have an interest in signing Tyrann Mathieu, and they would have enough cap space to sign him to a two-year contract for what they believe he is worth," Bob Labriola of the Steelers' official website wrote. "The issue is whether Mathieu agrees with the Steelers' assessment about what he is worth."

    Pittsburgh has $14.9 million in cap space, and it should move now to get a deal with Mathieu done. He would be an excellent running mate for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and would immediately upgrade a defense that ranked 24th overall a year ago.

    Simply put, the Steelers should move on Mathieu before another team does. Even if other teams aren't high on Mathieu, Pittsburgh has other needs it should address in the draft—the Steelers ranked dead-last against the run while ranking 29th in rushing—and signing Mathieu would ensure that strong safety isn't one of them.

Larry Ogunjobi to the Cincinnati Bengals

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi had a fantastic campaign with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021. He started 16 games—the Bengals rested starters in the season finale—and finished with seven sacks, 49 tackles, 20 solo stops and 24 quarterback pressures.

    Ogunjobi was set to cash in with a $40.5 million contract in free agency, but his deal with the Chicago Bears was voided by a failed physical. He suffered a foot injury during the postseason that required surgery.

    While the failed physical is concerning, it may also allow Cincinnati to get Ogunjobi back at a bargain. The Bengals weren't going to sign both him and D.J. Reader to long-term deals. Reader got a four-year, $53 million contract.

    Ogunjobi may now be willing to take a one-year "prove-it" deal, similar to the $6.2 million contract he signed last offseason. With $17.1 million in cap space remaining, Cincinnati can work that into its financial plans.

    Signing Ogunjobi before the draft is logical for two reasons. One, it will give Cincinnati flexibility in the early rounds, as forcing a defensive line pick will be unnecessary. It will also prevent another team from swooping in and snagging Ogunjobi if can't address its own needs over draft weekend.

    All of this is contingent on Ogunjobi providing the Bengals with satisfactory medicals. If that happens, though, the Bengals should make Ogunjobi a short-term offer immediately.

JC Tretter to the Baltimore Ravens

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    Center JC Tretter has never been named to a Pro Bowl, but he's among the league's most dependable interior linemen. He was incredibly durable during his five seasons in Cleveland, missing only one game during that span on the reserve/COVID-19 list and none because of injury. He also played 100 percent of the snaps when active with the Browns.

    Now that Tretter is a free agent—he was released by Cleveland at the start of free agency—he should be high on the Ravens' radar. Again, Baltimore may have to do some financial finagling, but it should do whatever it can to sign Tretter before the draft.

    The Ravens could look to replace Bozeman before the draft, and they might not need to use a first-round pick to do so. According to ESPN's Matt Miller, first-round linemen could be pushed into the second round early by positional runs.

    "One source I spoke to this week expected notable names to be available 'into the teens' as quarterbacks and wide receivers dominate the top 15," Miller wrote. "Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum is the consensus top center in this class, but the same source told me that mock draft scenarios have been run in which Linderbaum is available in Round 2."

    Signing the 31-year-old Tretter would give Baltimore a reliable starter at center and take the position out of the early-draft equation. Why reach for Linderbaum at No. 14 or hope he falls to Round 2 when the Ravens can sign Tretter and address other positions instead? It wouldn't make sense. Signing Tretter as soon as possible would.


    Contract and cap information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.